Special Feature: Interview with the Bishop of Croydon

By - Thursday 21st March, 2013

On the first anniversary of his consecration, Liz Sheppard-Jones talks gays, girls, and relevance with the Bishop of Croydon

Statistically speaking, the Church of England is a sect with a readily calculable vanishing point. Officially, just 3% of the population, or 1.7 million people, attend one of its services each month.

Bishop Jonathan Clark, whom I meet in his office at St Matthew’s House in Central Croydon late one Tuesday afternoon in early March, is approaching the end of his first year in the post of Bishop of Croydon and naturally enough sees things differently. Citing thechurchofengland.org, he reminds me that more than 4 in 10 people in England regard themselves as belonging to it, while 6 in 10 consider themselves Christian. 35 per cent of the population attend a Christmas service of some sort, rising to 42 per cent in London. Interestingly, 22 per cent among those of non-Christian faiths also do so.

While we are number-crunching, Bishop Jonathan makes two points, one which does not seem to bear the weight he places upon it and one which definitely does.  Firstly, in an ever-busier and more demanding world, he suggests that the commitment of weekly church-going is unrealistic for many and that monthly attendance (as recorded by the Church of England) does not indicate a lessening of commitment (discuss); secondly, that when the habit of church-going is lost, the act itself grows more, rather than less, significant. As attendance, and belief itself, shifts from a common habit to a positive choice, a church becomes more meaningful and therefore more potentially powerful than when attendance was a behavioural norm.

This may be the foundation for Bishop Jonathan’s optimism, an infectious and appealing trait too rarely present in discussions of Croydon. But in any case, statistical wars are something of a blind alley.  A short walk through our Town Centre gives the lie to the secularist assertion that Christianity is becoming an irrelevance.  Other religions are also represented here, but Christianity is a vibrant presence.

Bishop Jonathan does not claim to have his Croydon eye fully in yet, and comments cautiously when I ask his views of the Croydon riots, the aftershocks of which were still shuddering through the community on his arrival seven months later, in March 2012.  He expresses pride in the Church of England’s response to the riots in Hackney, where he was then based, and where the Church organised a lively ‘Reclaim the Streets’ party the day after violence had ripped through them.

Bishop Jonathan feels that the loss of a sense of place and importance made rioting possible

This connection with place, and an understanding of its importance, is something he brings to Croydon and which will surely grow as his own connectedness here increases. He wants his Church’s role in our community’s recovery to be in part the re-establishment of a sense of place and its importance, the loss of which he feels made rioting possible. This is a most astute observation.  Belonging has to evaporate entirely before anyone can hurl a brick through the window of their own local shop.

Bishop Jonathan expresses his concern for those who experience themselves as outsiders, briefly or continuously, and speculates on their reasons – poverty, the effects of racism, loss of work and the ensuing loss of pride and identity that it can bestow. He comments in particular on the loss of the role of provider into which young, less-educated men could step easily in past generations but which they now struggle to achieve.

Bishop Jonathan is a signatory to a protest letter condemning the government’s plan for a 1 per cent annual increase in welfare benefits in each of the next three years, regardless of inflation. The protesting bishops describe the move as being targeted at the poorest in society, and cite their ‘duty to support those among us who are vulnerable and in need’.

He also looks beyond home concerns, observing that as the location of the United Kingdom Borders Agency, Croydon is a magnet for asylum seekers.  The poor, the desperate and the nation-less experience Britain as a refuge (or otherwise) depending on what happens to them here.  He affirms the Church’s mission in respect of such people  – to bring social justice, respect and compassion for all – and his wish that as a community we continue to welcome and aid them, even as our own problems grow more pressing.

All of this, if communicated on a national level as clearly as he communicates it to me,  would result in a very different kind of press coverage to that commonly received by the Church of England.  So what prevents this from happening?  Why, when one of its leaders clearly wishes to talk first and foremost about economic and social justice and takes public action in support of the poor and disadvantaged, do the headlines relentlessly tell such a different story – one of the Church’s conflicts, rigidity, and, frankly, absurdity on certain subjects? (Unless any reader considers whether women should have equal promotion rights to be a sensible topic for debate, in which case… well nothing, really).

The coverage happens, I think, because a powerful narrative of disunity has taken hold. Something similar has befallen the Coalition, which despite regular examples of legislative co-operation is seen to be at loggerheads. This is of course both true and not true – the coalition is divided on some themes and united on others, as is the Church of England.  But in such cases, the media scents that members of a group claiming to belong together are in fact unalike and do not readily trust each other. Once a narrative of unity has been lost, it is extremely difficult to reclaim it.

The Church of England in Croydon focuses around its Minster church, a beautiful and historic building in Old Town, and here I detect an aspect of the Church’s difficulty in defining itself as one. On its website and in the Minster’s entrance hangs a notice stating its wish to ‘be a place where all, regardless of race, gender or sexuality, may encounter God’. The Minster’s shrewd and witty vicar, the Rev Colin J Luke Boswell, differentiates himself from the fire-and-miracles ministries of West Croydon and discourages belief in demons, hell-fire, literalism and – reading between the lines – much else that goes with this.

Just as a leader such as ex-Archbishop Rowan Williams, supportive of the full ministry of women and willing to extend a welcome to the sexual minorities Christianity has traditionally shunned, looks upon his brother bishops in Uganda and Nigeria, so I suggest to Bishop Jonathan that the Minster regards some of its co-religionists.

Croydon Minster

And the difficulty of belonging together in Croydon continues. Reverend Boswell described to me how his Minster also offers an effective ‘reverse Ordinariate’. (The Ordinariate is a fast-track entry programme offered by the Church of Rome to Anglicans and others who oppose liturgical revisions, the ordination of women and open homosexuals as priests and the sanctioning of homosexuality in any circumstances).  Its membership spans  four continents and it has a presence in 12 of the 43 dioceses of England including a participant congregation in Croydon, St Michael and All Angels). Reverend Boswell observed to me that numbers of his congregants attend Croydon Minster because traditionalism and conservatism elsewhere are unacceptable to them.

But Bishop Jonathan rejects my suggested scenario of polarisation on the following grounds: first that the Church in Croydon and elsewhere is not split but balanced along a spectrum of opinion, and secondly that there can be unity even in great diversity.  He declines my proffered description of him as Croydon’s Anglican CEO, preferring instead the role of enabler and communicator, tasked with listening to all voices, facilitating dialogue, and supporting the discovery of common purpose. When he has found this, his over-riding wish is for his Church to put it into action for social change.

Speaking of social change, this is an interview with a senior member of the Anglican Church and it is therefore now incumbent upon us to argue about sex. This is not the place to rehearse the sorry tale of the worldwide Church’s struggle with sexuality – the only points which command universal agreement are that it is bitter and on-going. This is why it is  important to clarify the position of Croydon’s Anglican leader.

Bishop Jonathan believes that unity is paramount for the Church of England and refuses to express a view on gay clergy. Were he to hold a stated position this would, in his opinion, either pre-empt the discussions which need to happen in Croydon or alienate those holding the opposite view to his.

For critics, this is the Church’s get-out-of-jail-free card, whereby love means never having to say you’re sorry

He also perceives a difference between unease or uncertainty at gay sexual practice and homophobia  – the H word being that routinely hurled by the supporters of gay marriage equality at its opponents. He claims examples in his own experience of those holding divergent views, and indeed possessing divergent sexualities, co-operating together, studying the Bible, and upholding each other in respect and love. It is his view that a person’s sexuality is not such a fundamental part of identity that failure to respect it equates to failure to respect the person as a whole.

His conviction is that while God is unchanging, and that perceptions of what God is change and develop along with developing human understanding of what is true. In each generation, what was originally meant by the Bible or taught by the founding fathers of Christianity therefore require re-examination and re-discovery. It’s a view often expressed in the Church of England’s sexuality debates and a terrifically useful boot with which to kick the can down the road. For critics, this is also the Church’s get-out-of-jail-free card, whereby love means never having to say you’re sorry.

At this point I want a more personal glimpse of Bishop Jonathan’s human response to the sexuality debate, for sexuality by its very nature draws a personal response from each of us. Seeking this, I put to him what I describe as a test of imagination – what if he were blessed with a great love –  respectful, nurturing, life-affirming and sacramental – but its object was another man? This is the simple claim of campaigners within the Church and outside it – that love is love and should be celebrated in marriage – and our established Church’s exemption from the requirement to conduct gay weddings has caused pain and incomprehension.

But when I put to him my belief in love’s equal nature, gay or straight (one I tell him that I passionately hold) there is incomprehension on his part also. ‘Is it the same?’ he asks. Later he comments that ‘it can be’. This part of our discussion leaves me with a feeling of intense sadness, in marked contrast to the positivity which is our new bishop’s chief gift to Croydon.

‘Is it the same?’

Bishop Jonathan’s vision for Croydon, a place somewhat visioned-out and OD’d on the process of  regeneration, combines the stability he believes is offered by Christian teaching with a positive view of the process of change. Given the decisions and dilemmas facing our community, the hope of timeless safety within which the unknown future can be faced is powerfully appealing.

But I am left wondering once again which will come first, peace over sexuality within the Church of England or the formation of glacial structures in hell.  For Croydon and the Church, what lies ahead remains a winding road.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • http://twitter.com/MarioCreatura Mario Creatura

    Fascinating interview and piece Liz – my tuppence: equal marriage is a fascinating issue and one that I am passionately in favour of. Interestingly polling indicates that it’s very much an age issue for most: those above 50 tend to be almost unanimously against what they negatively term as the ‘redefinition of marriage’ but those under 30 on the whole either a) don’t see what the issue with marriage equality is or b) don’t care either way. As with the protestations when homosexuality was first legalised or when civil partnerships were first introduced, in time it will die down as people become used to social change and accept that the sky will not fall in.

  • http://www.facebook.com/liz.sheppardjones Liz Sheppard-Jones

    Hi Mario and thanks. I agree with your point about age, and I tell myself there’s a historic inevitability about the changes we both want to see, although across the Anglican Communion as a whole this is a very long-term view. Perhaps, like the Vatican, it thinks in centuries :-) .

  • Gaël Sauvajon-Lesslar

    Amazing article! Glad to see my neighbour, Mario liking it as well!